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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

A Class With Class

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 5/27/2024
Occurred: 7/18/2009 11:30:00 PM
Page Views: 1149
Topics: #St.Augustine #Florida #ClassReunion #St.JosephAcademy
Michael and I attend my 40th class reunion.

Leaving our grandson Zachary with his aunt and uncle, Michael and I went directly from the cemetery to the final event of my 40th high school class reunion, to be held at Zhanra's Arts and Eats, a bar sort-of-place on Anastasia Island just across the bridge from downtown. We'd been told there would be "heavy hors devours" which was pretty much exactly what I should not be eating. And they were to be served in a "cigar bar" which is apparently still legal in Florida. I assume the Orgy Room was already booked.

St. Augustine High School & St. Joseph Academy Class of 1969 40th Class Reunion

St. Augustine's venerable Bridge of Lions is being rebuilt so the traffic was a bit problematic but, thanks to the GPS and my willingness to defy it (and then allow it to lead me out of trouble), we were soon parked in Zhanra's lot and went in, stopping just long enough to get a picture of the very nice and professional-looking sign outside.

The previous night we had concentrated on locating, out of the crowd, the members of my St. Joseph Academy class. But since this is a combined reunion for St. Augustine High School and SJA students, I thought it would be fun to talk with some of the SAHS students I knew.

For example, Linda Hall was there and seemed to be the primary organizer for the St. Augustine High students.

Linda Hall and Nancy Alexander

I knew Linda from my days in Cross & Sword, Florida's Official State Play. I was astounded to find that Linda was my age—because, while I was effectively still a gawky teenager, she was playing the statuesque female lead in the show, the beautiful Princess Notina. Princess Notina was killed each night at the end of the show for her troubles, but now Linda had joined SJA's Nancy Alexander in arranging the class reunion.

Another friend from Cross & Sword was Bill Lewis, who explained to Michael and me that his friends all called him the "gayest straight guy they know." He had been one of the male dancers in the show, so that may have been a contributing factor. He was now dating a woman who had dated my friend Tom Franke when I was in junior college.

Another familiar face was that of Mel Longo. Mel went to SAHS but dated our own Susan Stanton for a time—seriously enough that he showed up to help build our homecoming float. In the photo below left, that's Susan on the left and Mel on the right. Classmate John Palmes (who has since taken to using his middle name, Chris) is in the middle showing off his chest.

John wasn't able to make the reunion this year, but since this was our first combined reunion, it was the first time Susan and Mel had seen each other since high school.

John wasn't able to make the reunion this year, but since this was our first combined reunion, it was the first time Susan and Mel had seen each other since high school.

Mel Longo & Susan Stanton

Mel Longo & Susan Stanton

Art Runk & Janet Andreu

It was also fun to see Art Runk, who went to St. Joe but in the class before mine. He is now dating my class' Janet Andreu, which I suppose means he is, technically, robbing the cradle; especially since she still manages to look younger than any of us (or, for that matter, my daughters).

Less fun was seeing the portraits Nancy had printed of our fallen classmates. In addition to the kids who died before graduation, like Gary Drake, Tommy Tutten and James Eubanks, we'd lost four since.

Mike Masters

Michael Masters was one of the four gay kids from our class, though I hadn't known it when we were in school together. But a few years after graduation, I met him and his partner, Rudy. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. Michael came from one of those grand old Southern families that had never quite come to grips with integration, much less homosexuality. But a few years later, I heard Mike had died of AIDS—the only person I've known personally to have perished of that affliction.

Mary Ellen Dobbs

Mary Ellen Dobbs went next. She died suddenly of congestive heart failure. She was married with two kids when she passed.

I didn't know Mary Ellen very well, but I worked for her father, who owned Dobbs Bookbinding, when I was attending junior college, and while there became buddies with her brother, David. Later, David took over management of the bindery around the time my sister, Mary Joan, worked there. My condolences go out to him and to her family.

Louis Mariani

Louis Mariani was one of the coolest guys in class and definitely the strongest—he once got annoyed by the football coach's son, Eddie, a powerful young man himself, and picked him up and hurled him against the gym wall. After high school he got a job as a tour guide for the developing city of Palm Coast and so did I; so we worked together there for several months. During that time we grew to be friends; I showed him my cartoons and he shared with me his poetry.

I did note at the time that his poetry seemed a little, well, dark. Apparently some time after the Palm Coast job ended, Louis succumbed to some schizophrenic-type malady. He was locked up in a home for awhile, until Eddie got him released. The Louis who attended our 25th class reunion bore no resemblance to the man I'd known at Palm Coast. He'd gained a huge amount of weight, grown his hair to his waist, and spoke erratically. Sometime before our 30th reunion, he was found in his car, dead of a prescription drug overdose. It was not considered suicide since his condition made it quite possible that he'd simply forgotten whether he'd already taken his meds.

Joe Oliveros

Joe Oliveros was the boy I admired most in class. I wasn't alone, as he was voted class president at least once.

He was one of my classmates with typical St. Augustine-weird connections to my life, as his family sold their Sevilla Street house to mine; and while I lived in his old house, his family moved into a house two doors down from my future wife's.

After high school, Joe became a forest ranger, which I also admired (I eventually went to work for the Florida Division of Forestry, myself). I spoke with him by phone at our 30th reunion. Sadly, shortly afterward he died of stomach cancer.

Still, there's the bright side. Our class of 43 people (as shown in our yearbook; we had one additional graduate at the actual ceremony) has lost slightly less than 10% of our numbers to death after 40 years—which is actually a pretty good average.

Michael and I had actually been at the event no more than half-an-hour—the heavy hors devours had been served and were, indeed, making us heavier—when the electricity went out. A couple of dim emergency lights came on but that was it. Soon, there was also no compressed air for the soda dispenser. It was Florida hot (ten or twenty degrees cooler than Phoenix but with the humidity of a bucket of mop water) and it quicker became unbearable inside so we fled to the parking lot. It was quieter there and more conducive to conversation anyway. Michael and I were able to have actual meaningful conversations with friends from my class. In some cases, this was for the first time ever since our conversations in high school had pretty much been limited to the latest nicknames for the nuns who taught us.

The lack of electricity also put a stop to the flow of heavy hors devours; I hope Nancy got at least a partial refund from the venue. The power did return after a couple of hours, but by then a lot of people had given up and left. This is certainly an unlikely business model but given the frequency of 40th-year reunions it might just work for them.

I had noticed the night before, and also tonight, that there was a table of spouses who seemed to have little interest in anything other than getting through the evening without gnawing off their own legs. There were certainly a few folks who were interested in meeting their spouse's friends; but not all of them. I was very proud of Michael, who had come into this with several potential scary issues: My ex-wife had been a member of the same class; she had been friends with many of our classmates; we'd been to a Catholic high school and Michael might be perceived as not only contributing to my divorce but as having "turned me gay". (Not true, of course; but who knows what people you've never met might think?) However, if he had any of these thoughts, he never expressed them and, in point of fact, every single person there treated him as if he'd been their friend for years.

So I was proud of my classmates as well as of Michael.

In fact, as Nancy and I noted, ours had really been a special class, thanks to the timing. We had been all-white in the South until 8th grade, when a handful of black students joined us. It could have been horrid and of course I can't speak to the experience of those students. I do know that one of them, Thomas Jackson, became a friend of mine and it was his father who taught me photography; I spent a lot of time at his home and in his dad's darkroom developing photos. His wife is my sister's best friend today. Nancy told of the "adventure" of attending classmate Veronica Bell's graduation party in the "black" part of town, when the white kids worried about what kind of food the black folks might be serving. It was that remarkable time in history that began the breaking down of the walls of racism, a process which still continues and yet it is reasonable to say that our class, the Class of 1969, contributed in a real way to the evolution that has included our having an African-American family in the White House today.

One could say that, as a class, we had class.

Unfortunately Thomas and his wife, Barbara, couldn't make it to this year's reunion. But I do get to see them once in while, sometimes when I'm visiting my sister.

And there's always the next reunion!

"We need to do this more often," Nancy said as Michael and I helped her return a table to her car. She suggested that we get together with our one surviving nun teacher, Sister LaSalette, when Michael and I return to St. Augustine in a few days. "She really loves getting together with old students," Nancy explained. I promised to try, not knowing for sure what time we'll be back from our side trip to Virginia on Wednesday.

And then we drove back to my sister's to get some power sleep in before our long drive in the morning.